A bird’s eye view: Realtor launches virtual tour of downtown SJ


A screen shot is taken from the virtual tour of downtown St. Joseph. The tour was set up by the RE/MAX by the Lake real estate firm. They say the tour may be expanded in the future if more businesses wish to participate.

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — With the help of a local real estate firm, tourists and potential homebuyers can get a good look at businesses in downtown St. Joseph from their computers.

With the help of marketing firm Classic Communications, Lars and Liz Petzke have launched an aerial drone 360-degree virtual city tour of St. Joseph. The tour can be accessed by visiting www.visitstjoemi.com.

The tour implements immersive virtual reality, allowing site visitors to pivot in several directions and zoom in to see images from the downtown St. Joseph area. The view and feeling of movement duplicates what a drone captures from above.

Lars Petzke, owner of RE/MAX by the Lake, said the project was completed in the later part of the summer through the use of FAA-sanctioned aerial drones.

The idea is to give potential homebuyers and visitors the chance to see what St. Joseph has to offer.

“We wanted to create a virtual view of our town. Something that could benefit folks from out of the area,” Petzke said. “It was a showpiece for our beaches and all our great businesses downtown. My wife was the driving force behind it. She had the idea of getting other businesses involved.”

When pulling up the map, there are several 360-degree views that visitors can select to investigate the area. The current tour map features interactive aerial views of downtown St. Joseph, Silver Beach, Tiscornia Beach, Jean Klock Park, the North Pier lighthouses and St. Joseph High School.

Currently, there is a RE/MAX by the Lake logo floating on screen. By selecting it, visitors get a virtual look inside the ReMax entrance, lobby, boardroom and offices. Petzke said the next step will be to shoot individual 360-degree tours of local St. Joseph businesses and attractions, and then embed them into the aerial map of the city.

This would allow anyone to virtually visit St. Joseph from a computer, tablet or smart phone.

“We were able to line it up with what our vision was,” Petzke said. “Ideally, it can familiarize people with St. Joe and encourage them to buy a home here. In the short term, it helps businesses who take advantage of it.”

Information can be added anywhere on the virtual tour, which includes links to pages, interactive tours, videos or a logo showing where they’re located.

The aerial map is completely scalable, and could be expanded with additional aerial views in the future.

“I’m surprised at how cool it is. I’ve seen some of the videos and tours, but to see it produced for our hometown is just amazing to see,” Petzke said. “We’re really at the ground floor for the public access, but anyone can go online to see it.”

Mapping a city

The website also features an aerial promotional video of St. Joseph produced by Niles-based Classic Communication.

Ron Barger, president of Classic Communications, said they could easily include some of the marinas and connect it to other cities.

“They’re not like Google tours. They are more detailed,” Barger said. “We can put a menu to click on to see what’s is available. When Liz and Lars contracted with us, they became our first private tour we’ve done. Many are done through municipal efforts.”


A screen shot of the virtual tour of the North Pier lighthouses and surrounding area in St. Joseph.

Prior to mapping downtown St. Joseph, Barger said they created virtual tours of Bridgman and Niles.

The FAA-certified drones are flown above the respective area and take 64- to 128-degree rotation shots that are stitched together for a full shot. The drones’ pilots are required to provide flight plans so the company’s clients are not liable.

There are no shots from more than 400 feet. Barger said they don’t go too high with the drone, otherwise some of the detail in the pictures would be lost.

Berger and his team also chose a good day to take photos on. The virtual tour is laden with images of a classic car show going on, which coincided with Chalk the Block sketches still visible on the streets.

Taking the photos and combing them together to form the site took about a month.

Barger feels this form of technology will become a common thing in the next decade as the process is simplified.

“There are so many ways this gets better as technology gets better,” he said. “Right now, as you turn your body while viewing this map on a mobile device, it turns with you. We’ve had three or four other municipalities reach out to us with this.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 15, 2016)

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